Even if last week’s strike by members of the NUT and NASUWT in the North West received little attention from the national media, it represented an important step in the campaign against Michael Gove’s ‘war on teachers’. With industrial action at a low, teacher organisations, relative latecomers– a legacy of their past traditions as ‘professional associations’ –are now playing a leading role in opposing austerity in general.
The NUT and NAS joint action is also significant because the two organisations have often had a fraught relationship, reflecting the historic division of teacher organisations –today there are still four different organisations representing classroom teachers and two representing school leaders. This unprecedented level of cooperation can only be seen as a step in the struggle to create one union for all teachers.
The unions have also promoted their action as a being about defending education, rather than just teachers. This is without question, the correct approach and has to be developed much further, if teachers are going to make some real gains. For example, making more of the increasingly draconian styles of performance management imposed of teachers –in effect, payment by result—and the ‘commodification’ of classroom activity, where learning becomes ‘bite sized’ and where rather than pooling skills and resources, teachers are increasingly forced to compete with each other.
But as well as integrating policies for the curriculum and learning into their action campaign, opposing rising class sizes in primary schools and now Gove’s deregulation of school holidays; teacher organisations have to do some longer term thinking, changing the emphasis of some of their campaigning activities. In effect, the general political framework in which the teacher unions operate requires updating.
In the post-war years, teacher unions were at the centre of campaigns to expand school provision and to make ‘education a right, not a privilege’. These objectives are still pertinent, with particular groups continuing to experience huge inequities; but they also need to be reconsidered and reworked in a period where the increased participation in education, including higher education, does not automatically produce the individual returns that young people have been encouraged to expect and leaving many ‘overqualified’ for the work they end up in. If they are able to find work at all.
Rather than just assuming we can ‘educate our way out of recession’ if only enough resources are allocated, teachers are allowed the freedom to ‘do their job’ and ‘professionalism’ is restored, teacher unions need greater involvement in the development of more general policies for young people as a whole, including for the economy and employment – as well as taking up wider issues of social justice. Increased ‘professional unity’ is to be welcomed, but in these new and difficult times, teacher unions must also look outwards and develop new types of alliances.
In the meantime though, support for the teacher unions’ action should be unconditional.